Thoughts about Hanna
- The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Phoenix House, 216 pp, £12.99, November 1997, ISBN 1 261 59063 5
Last year in Bonn in the brand-new Museum of Modern History (Haus der Geschichte) I watched a video about concentration camps. A row of female guards captured by the Allies stood in line, middle-aged and grim. Then a younger one spoke straight to camera. She was blonde and dishevelled; she said her name, her age – 24 – and that she had been at Belsen two months. She looked terrified. I felt sorry for her, and shocked that I was. This novel is about someone like her, and examines the feelings I had.
It is an anxious, intense and gripping work, and the opening is characteristically abrupt: ‘When I was 15, I got hepatitis.’ That was in 1958. The narrator is Michael Berg, the son of a professor of philosophy. One day on his way home from school he throws up and nearly faints. A woman takes him into the courtyard of her apartment block, sluices him down at the pump, then sluices down the pavement. He is crying, so she gives him a hug, and walks him home. He spends the next six months in bed. As soon as he gets better, his mother sends him off with a bunch of flowers to thank the woman. He goes to see her again a few days later, and they make love.
Hanna is 36 and a tram conductor. She lives alone, and Michael visits her every day after school. She is brusque, sexy and affectionate in a briskly maternal way. She calls him ‘Kid’. (Fortunately this very good translation is American. Whatever would have happened to Jungchen in English?) She is always washing; a lot of their love-making takes place in the shower, and Michael’s elation at his initiation and growing competence, as well as the pure delight of sex, come steaming off the page. Schlink writes marvellously about adolescence and about sex. He is particularly good on smells like soap and fresh sweat, and he does it with hardly any adjectives. Michael’s idiom is spare to the point of austerity, in keeping with the man he has become 30 years later when he writes this memoir.
Hanna likes being read to, and Michael reads her his school set books: Homer, Lessing, Schiller; and after that, War and Peace. ‘Reading to her, showering with her, making love to her, and lying next to her for a while afterwards – that became the ritual in our meetings.’ But the idyll is not perfect. Hanna is subject to unpredictable fits of pique and fury; once she strikes Michael with her belt and the buckle tears his face. The boy blames his own insensitivity, imagining that because of his inexperience he has wounded her in some way he can’t fathom.
But his new-found confidence makes him popular with his school-mates, and he begins to spend a lot of time hanging out with them at the swimming-pool. One day Hanna turns up there; he does not run immediately to join her; and a moment later she has gone. The next day he goes to her flat. It is empty. She hasn’t even left an address. Again he blames himself for having behaved badly to her.